Sleep makes me anxious.
It’s not easy for me.
Sometimes I look forward to being sick because it gives me an excuse to take nighttime cold medicine.
I know I won’t worry about whether or not I’ll be able to sleep through the night. I can be certain I’m going to pass out HARD. I’ll wake up feeling super groggy, but at least I won’t be up at 4am ruminating about some argument I had 5 years ago.
Sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise. Out of the three, sleep is the least in your control.
You can have the best sleep routine in the world, but if you overthink things, if you’re brain just doesn’t know when to shut up, you’ll still find yourself struggling to wake up feeling rested and energized.
This post largely draws from personal experience as it’s still something I struggle with.
I imagine it always will be. Unlike getting through a workout, you can’t muscle your way through sleep. You can’t be super intense about learning how to relax.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive.
There still are techniques and strategies you can implement to help you sleep through the night. This is what I’ll be talking about in this post.
None of the techniques here are foolproof of course. But they certainly have helped me get back to sleep when my brain decided it wanted to think about literally everything that has ever happened.
And that's the point of this post. To help you fall back to sleep when you wake up at 3am and your brain is going a million miles an hour.
Let's get into it.
1. Gratitude alphabet
This one I stole from my friend and fellow coach Chelsea McAlexander. You go through the alphabet and for every letter, find something you’re grateful for that starts with that letter.
For example, “A”, I’m grateful for Avocados. “B”, I’m grateful for Burritos. “C” I’m grateful for Carne Asade...I think you see where this is going.
Most of the thoughts that keep you up at night, the ones that replay in your mind like a broken record, come from negativity. They come from stress and worry.
Worry in particular, comes from a scarcity mindset. The best way to counteract a scarcity mindset is gratitude. That, coupled with the slight mental challenge of playing a letter game of sorts helps edge out the stuff that’s keeping you awake. It puts your head in a better place and helps quiet the static.
2. Read a boring book
Anna Karenina makes for a great bedtime story. Because it’s boring as shit.
I had pretty good sleep while I was reading it. Which was a while, because it’s like a million pages long.
I’d clock out in about half a paragraph i.e., 1 page. So yeah, unnecessarily long Russian literature makes for a good sleep aid.
3. Read something in a foreign language
Learning languages is a hobby/pursuit of mine, so if I can’t sleep reading something in Chinese is really helpful, simply because it requires so much concentration that it wears my brain out. Plus, you can’t simultaneously be ruminating about something in English while reading something in a language that's difficult for you to understand.
There’s simply not enough bandwidth.
So if you’re learning a new language, try reading something in that language. If you’re not learning a new language, maybe you should start :P
4. Watch some TV
Yeah, yeah, I know. Turn all your devices off an hour before bed. I get it.
I even agree with it!
However, sometimes the only thing distracting enough to get you to fall asleep are episodes of Futurama you've seen at least 10 times.
Keep the volume low and the red filter on.
Watch something unexciting, something you’ve seen loads of times, or simply something that has zero element of suspense, action, violence etc. So yeah, no Punisher or Inception before bed.
5. Keep a journal by your bedside
If something pops into your head you need to remember for tomorrow, jot it down and be done with it.
It’s on paper. You can't forget it now. No need to think about it anymore. You can let it go.
Pen and paper by the bed is also good if you have something on your mind, something you want to get off your chest. Writing out your feelings always helps to process them.
Journalling is powerful. A 3am journal sesh can quickly put your mind at ease.
6. White noise + ear plugs
My wife and I stayed at an Airbnb in Taipei that was right next to a fairly busy road. It wasn’t super loud, but loud enough to be concerning. Preemptively, I put on some very loud white noise to help drown out the occasional truck driving by and sending vibrations through the room.
That night, I didn’t wake up once.
That was the first time I’d slept through the night since I could remember. For as long as we stayed in that room, I had some of the best sleep I had had in years.
The white noise drowns out any random, sudden noises, whereas the ear plugs muffle the white noise so it's more "white noisey" and less distinct.
Plus, whenever I did wake up, I quickly fell back to sleep.
Ironically, having the sound of literal static drowns out mental static.
Now, I’ve been sleeping with earplugs for probably about a decade because I’m such a light sleeper. And people, dogs, and roosters are noisy AF. Not kidding about the roosters by the way. #longstory
So I’m quite accustomed to ear plugs by now. It did take a bit though. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way around it. You just have to suck it up and eventually you get used to wearing them.
Bonus! 4 pre-emptive tips for sleeping through the night
Now, getting back to sleep is one thing. But ideally you don’t want to lay awake at night at all!
So just as exercise and nutrition are pre-emptive measures to prevent illness, you should approach sleep with this same principal.
The best way to solve the problem is to prevent it.
Exercise and nutrition don’t guarantee you won’t have high blood pressure, but they do significantly lower your chances of it.
Such are the following strategies, they don’t guarantee you won’t wake up and start overthinking, but they lower your chances of it.
1. Journal before bed
Get alllllll those thoughts on paper before bed so you don’t need a 3am journal session. This should help clear your mind of any mental clutter you might dwell on.
2. Pay attention to what things will get you overthinking and avoid them like the plague around bedtime
Be mindful about this. If you’ve spent lots of time awake in the middle of the night, you probably know what thoughts keep you awake.
Do your best to avoid things that will trigger those thoughts so close to bed. This means conversations, TV, books, youtube, whatever. Pay attention to what puts you in a certain frame of mind and avoid them around bedtime.
3. Be in tune with how much sleep you need
General guidelines for sleep are 7-9 hours. Though this varies from person to person. It also depends on your activity levels. If you're more active, you'll naturally need more sleep because the body needs to recover from said activity.
The best way to know how much sleep you need optimally is to know how long you can sleep uninterrupted.
No alarm. No being woken up by the sun. No stupid roosters.
Basically whenever you wake up on your own will tell you approximately how many hours of sleep you need.
Best way to do this is on a weekend when you know you don’t need to set an alarm. Go to bed at your weekday bedtime (not your weekend 2am bedtime). Presuming you have a decent night sleep, when you wake up will tell you how many hours you ought to be getting on average.
4. Give yourself an early enough bedtime to wake up before your alarm
It’s impossible to sleep when you’re calculating how many hours of sleep you can get if you fall asleep RIGHT NOW, or in an hour, or in two hours.
It’s painfully ironic, yet that’s just how it works.
Go to bed early enough so you don’t have to stress if you miss an hour or two. You won’t put pressure on yourself to go to sleep right this second because you're worried about being tired for your interview tomorrow morning and your alarm is going to go off in 3 hours.
Oh yeah. While we’re on the subject. Stop looking at the freaking time whenever you wake up! You can’t do math if you don’t know what time it is.
Sleep is tricky.
I can show you how to overcome your anxiety of the gym and lift with proper form. I can help you make healthier nutritional choices to promote weight loss. These things are fairly straightforward in that way. If you put in the work consistently, the results follow.
We know what decisions yield fat loss and improved fitness. The hard part is actually following through and making those decisions.
Sleep is different. You can make the right decisions and the results won't necessarily be proportional to your efforts.
Because sleep is so dependent on your mental state it’s inevitably more complicated. The steps to achieve good sleep consistently aren’t necessarily as concrete as the steps to make your stomach flat.
That said, if you choose to make sleep a priority you can get better quality sleep. Which is life changing. I was shocked at how much better my mental health was, how much easier dealing with life was after I started making sleep a priority.
Just remember, you can’t control how well you sleep, but you can control whether or not you set yourself up for a good night sleep by implementing the tips in this post.